Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, a few more words about the attempted bomb attack on that Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day. Back when I started in the newspaper business - when dinosaurs walked the Earth - we spent a lot of time crafting our ledes, that's the first paragraph of a story.

It was supposed to have five elements: who, what, when, where and why. These days, in the computer-assisted, Google-saturated 24-hour cable universe, the first four are almost instantaneous. It's that last one - why - that seems to elude us for far too long and with tragic results. I'm thinking here about two kinds of terrorists: the kind all of us seem to think about these days, and the kind only some of us do. The kind we are all thinking about are the ones that blow up buildings and themselves, that set off bombs in crowded markets and bring down airliners and command the attention of our brightest and most important people.

But I'm also thinking about the kinds of terrorists who only some of us have to worry about, who shoot people because they want their sneakers or are jealous of their girlfriends, who firebomb the houses of grandmothers who want them to stop congregating in front of the homes these grandmothers have worked many hours to afford. And when I think of about both of these kinds of terrorists, I realize we know an awful lot about who they are but not a lot about why they do what they do.

Can I just tell you, it strikes me that we care a great deal about why they do what they do only to the extent that it confirms what we already believe. We believe they are super criminals or terminally evil, impossible to redeem or we believe they are poor, misguided, desperate for a way out. But it seems clear to me by now that al-Qaida, just like the urban thugs who roam a small but powerful number of our cities, that terrorists have many faces. As author Jessica Stern wrote in a piece in this weekend's Washington Post about what motivates terrorists, some are desperately poor kids and some are bored rich kids. Some are motivated by religion, some by a sense of injustice. But some simply are motivated by a desire to be someone other than who they are now.

It's the same with thugs, some are desperately poor and misguided, victims themselves of horrific mistreatment and others are sociopathic misfits looking for a shortcut. But our approach to all is one or the other: isolate, punish, kill, or throw up our hands and withdraw, or occasionally sympathize, then throw up our hands and withdraw. But neither approach recognizes the realities of human nature and all the varied ways in which people can be motivated to do evil and then sometimes to walk away from evil, to change.

I hate to ask, but is that because all the people we're talking about here are brown and we have a hard time differentiating the many faces and motivations of brown people, that we cannot see that they are as varied in their thinking and motivations as white Europeans? Or is it that we, ourselves, have become so polarized in our own thinking, so self-absorbed, so convinced of our own correctness and worldview, that when we talk about other people we're really just talking about ourselves?

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues